Keoladeo Ghana National Park – Bharatpur, Rajasthan
A Paradise For Aerial Population
Keoladeo Ghana name signifies the location of the temple of Lord Shiva (Keoladeo) in the centre of the Park and dense (ghana) forest that covers the area. Keoladeo Ghana National Park is a soggy green paradise, which is an ideal home for a large variety of birds.
Scores of migratory species undertake a perilous journey over the Himalayas to make a seasonal home in this wetland ecosystem, the most famous of them being the magnificent but nearly extinct Siberian crane (Grus leucogeranus). This interlocking ecosystem of woodlands, swamps, wet prairies and dry Savannah is considered to be one of the world’s richest heronries, where thousands of birds get busy courting, mating and nesting.
Foundation Of The Sanctuary
The Keoladeo Ghana National Park and sanctuary was initially created by Maharaja Suraj Mal, because he had some great ideas not of conservation, but of the possibility of a constant supply of waterfowl for the royal dining table. At that time, it used to be a scrubby depression of land, seasonally enlivened by ephemeral ponds of water following the monsoons.
These ponds attracted some unsuspecting migratory ducks and geese in the winter months, and so Suraj Mal decided to turn it into a permanent reservoir, the Arjun Bund. And soon, Bharatpur became one of India’s most productive hunting reserves. So much so that the British officials used to vie for invitations!
The 16 square miles of marsh known as the Ghana jheel (ghana means dense, and jheel lake) hosted such grand duck shoots that no serious sportsman could afford to miss it. Colonel Sawai Brijendra Singh, a later maharaja of Bharatpur, explains: “The jheel had islands to which I constructed little roads that were wide enough for cars to take VIPs out to their butts Each duck shoot took months to arrange and to see that VIPs were not given bad butts was like making the seating arrangement for a dinner party. At the last moment someone would say, “Sorry, I can’t come”, and you then had to go through the list seeing who should go into a VIP butt and who could have his place.” Yet when it came to the largest bags, even Bharatpur had to give way to the imperial sandgrouse shoots at Bikaner.
Flora & Fauna
The Keoladeo Ghana National Park is now home to more than 370 species of birds. This large number comes somewhat as a surprise, considering what went on earlier in the name of a game. The site has gone through some of the worst events of duck shoots in the world. In November 1938, the then Viceroy Lord Linlithgow and his party massacred as many as 4273 ducks and geese. Linlithgow had with him two loaders to help him reload, and his guns got so hot with the rapid firing that they had to be sloshed regularly with cold water!
There’s also a small temple in the Keoladeo Ghana National Park which has a pillar near it with an inscription that reveals that over 5000 ducks were shot in one day alone. But thankfully things somewhat changed after Independence. Ghana became a Sanctuary in 1956, and graduated to being a National Park in 1981. This unique water-bird haven is recognized by the UNESCO as a world heritage site. The park provides unlimited opportunities for the bird watcher, wildlife photographer, nature writer, researcher in biology and, of course, the travel freak. The vegetation of the area is that of mixed deciduous forest type with plants like babool (Acacia arabica), ber and khajur.
During Springs The Park Comes To Life
The first shower of the season makes the Keoladeo Ghana National Park come alive, teeming with hundreds of feathered species. Cormorants, darters, spoonbills, ibises, herons, egrets, cranes, pelicans, flamingos, geese, ducks, larks, chats, kites, buntings, eagles, harriers, owls, vultures, kingfishers and many more are the part of this vibrant wetland, building nests in an estimated 50,000 trees. There are few places in the world where such a variety of birds can be so easily observed.
Visitors have claimed to have seen at least 80 species of birds among the 370 apart from some animals like the jackal, mongoose, sambar (large Asiatic deer), wild boar, turtles, monitor lizards within just half an hour of stepping into the park.
Wildlife enthusiast Charlie Pye-Smith gives a wonderful account of his visit: “Vast numbers of egret, stork, cormorant, spoonbill, ibis and heron had turned a babool wood into a raucous and smelly slum.
Jacana, pond heron and white breasted waterhen stalked silently over the lily pads while whiskered tern and pied kingfisher plunged into open water in search of fish and eels. In the dry scrub beyond the water’s edge there were mynahs, drongos, shrikes, bee-eaters and parakeets. The geese and ducks which fly south from the northern breeding grounds to spend the winter here had just begun to trickle in, but it was too early for Bharatpur’s most famous, the Siberian crane.
The first to arrive are the herons, followed by egrets, cormorants, ibis, spoonbills and storks, then the winter migrants from the Arctic Tundra and western Siberia numerous species of ducks, geese, coots, eagles, harriers and cranes. The new arrivals merge with the residents and a cacophony of sounds results.
Valmik Thapar in his book Land of the Tiger has given a descriptive account of this bird paradise and the birds in it. According to him, seven of the world’s 17 species of stork are found here, the most numerous and eye-catching being the painted stork, a large, long-legged, long-necked bird, rather ungainly on land but with an elegant soaring flight. It is predominantly white with black and white wings, earning the description ‘painted’ from the oddly contrasting pink patches on its back, orangy-pink head and legs and paler yellowy-pink bill.
Attractions Of Siberian Crane
Four species of crane visit Bharatpur and Keoladeo Ghana National Park, including the famous Siberian crane, but the Sarus crane is resident. A large grey bird with a red head and nearly as tall as a man, the Sarus crane is much venerated as a symbol of marital bliss in India. Sarus cranes pair for life, and locals believe that if one dies, the other will die of a broken heart.
The Sarus courtship display is one of the most magnificent bird spectacles in the world. The couple bow, circle round each other with outspread wings, throw back their long necks, take great leaps into the air, all the while uttering their far reaching, trumpeting call.
Other Aerial Attractions
Keoladeo Ghana National Park is the permanent home of four species of eagles: the Pallas fishing eagle, the short-toed eagle, the tawny eagle and the lesser spotted eagle. It is also the winter home of five other eagle species, including the crested serpent eagle, a local migrant that comes to feast on the countless snakes that breed in the wetland. Other winter visitors include the Bonelli’s hawk eagle, the imperial eagle and the greater spotted eagle. Even the white-tailed sea eagle has occasionally visited Bharatpur.
“Dusk in Bharatpur is owl time.” The most spectacular of Bharatpur’s eight species is the Indian eagle owl or great horned owl, but dusky horned owls, mottled wood owls, spotted owlets and collared scope owls are found in the woodlands near water’s edge.
A Saga Of Survival
The Siberian crane normally reaches Keoladeo Ghana National Park before December and stays till March, a tradition which has been carried on for thousands of years. This was rediscovered by German naturalist Peter S. Pallas in the 18th century. Traditionally, Fered Unkenar in Iran and Keoladeo Ghana are the only two wintering places for the western race of the Siberian crane. It reaches Bharatpur after a journey of 6,400 kilometres from the cold Siberian breeding grounds.
The Most Choosen Home Of Siberian Cranes
Braving all the frost and blizzard of the Gobi desert and the Himalayas, the Sibes or Siberian cranes chose to come all the way to bask in the warmth of Bharatpur during the winter months. Happily they flew in plenty before Ghana was formally created by Bharatpur’s maharaja. Then those terrible duck shoots began, and the poor creatures got frightened to their bones and stopped their yearly visits.
Much to the delight of ornithologists, these handsome birds appeared again in the 60s, long after the killings had stopped. And by 1964-5 over 200 of them came to winter here. But happy times were short lived; their numbers started dwindling again, and in 1990-1 only 10 cranes came.
Then in 1994-5 none came at all. In 1996, however, four Sibes were spotted in Keoladeo Ghana National Park about two months after their usual time of arrival and ornithologists all over heaved a huge sigh of relief. All this definitely points to the gradual extinction of these wonderful birdes. The total population of the Siberian crane now across the world is less than 2000.
The Decreasing Population Of Saberian Cranes
There are many reasons to this lamentable depletion. A pair of breeding cranes raise only one chick a year, and though the adult stands more than a mighty four feet tall, the tiny young ones often become the food for predatory shorebirds, gulls and dogs. En route their migration to Bharatpur they have to face dangers that are even more dangerous than the hostile terrain guns. Every year many of these birds are shot down in Afghanistan and Pakistan, despite protective laws in these countries. The remaining few alive reach Bharatpur exhausted, only to find that there’s no food for them any more! Courtesy, the Forest Department’s brilliant policies.
What happened was this. In 1982 the Forest Department declared, in all sincerity, that villagers be moved out of the park with their bag and baggage. They believed that the buffaloes owned by these villagers were readily depleting the park’s resources. But what the officials did not realize was that these buffaloes also ate up a lot of those weeds which were harmful for the growth of the cranes’ food plants.
And the cranes being fussy about their food, ate only the rhizomes and tubers of some aquatic plants, around which these weeds like the water hyacinth and certain sedges grew. Once the buffaloes were barred from the park, these weeds grew rampant leading to the closure of the cranes’ restaurant.
Some time back, the homeless villagers tried to re-establish themselves and their livestock in the Keoladeo Ghana National Park. But they were met by armed police, and seven of them were killed “for doing no more than exercising what they considered to be a traditional right.”
Visiting Hours: 0600-1800
Accommodation: Forest Rest house, ITDC Lodge, Saras Tourist Bungalow, Golbagh Palace Hotel.
Note : Motor vehicles are prohibited beyond a point in the Park (about 1.5 km beyond the main entrance). There’s a sealed road going though the Park interconnected by a series of raised embankments. Walking or cycling along these embankments is the best way of exploring the birdlife. However, the government authorized cycle rickshaws (with a yellow plate in front) are also great, because the rickshaw puller might be able to tell you more about birds than any ornithologist.
In fact it was one of these trained rickshaw pullers, Runghu Singh, who first spotted the four Sibes in 1996 (see above). The southern reaches of the Park are best for serious bird watching.
Do’s and Don’ts: Come armed with mosquito repellents, for these stingers can be a real nuisance near marshy areas.
Tourist reception Centre
Near RTDC Hotel Saras